“These tales of ratiocination owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key. I do not mean to say that they are not ingenious — but people think them more ingenious than they are — on account of their method and air of method. In the “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, for instance, where is the ingenuity of unravelling a web which you yourself (the author) have woven for the express purpose of unravelling? The reader is made to confound the ingenuity of the supposititious Dupin with that of the writer of the story.” – Edgar Allen Poe
The basic dramatic engine of Sherlock, by this point, has become the cathartic click as the puzzle box’s mechanisms slide into place in a moment of triumphant Aristoteleanism. Over ninety minutes, this produces an interesting effect. Because ninety minutes is also more or less your basic length for a film, there is a tendency to describe Sherlock in those terms – as periodic triptychs of Sherlock Holmes films. With two thirds of the episodes set as event episodes (that is, premieres or finales), it’s easy to get swept up in this.
Nevertheless, Sherlock is unmistakably television. The Sign of Three is a prime example – it is well aware that it has no obligation to make a stirring case for its scale and scope. Its end is a self-consciously subdued homage to The Green Death, it contains not a single overt tease of Magnusson. It is confident that people who are watching it will probably do so again in a week, and so does not engage in the sort of sprawling, ambitious cliffhanger that films (and, to be fair, series finales) do to hold interest over the course of months and years.
Perhaps more importantly, it shares Doctor Who‘s willingness to push against traditional dramatic structures. If one pauses Sherlock to ask “how much time is left,”one is almost always slightly surprised – the big plot beats never happen at quite the moment they’re scheduled. The dramatic climax of The Sign of Three comes a full ten minutes from the end, which isn’t unheard of, except that the last ten minutes are all quite subdued and tension free, as opposed to an exploration of the consequences of the climax or setup for something else. The plot is based around a pair of extended flashbacks that don’t seem connected to each other or the larger episode until the end. Instead there’s the continual anticipation of resolution – of the moment where things slot into place and the seemingly disjointed plotting is suddenly revealed as the precise clockwork of dramatic unity.
The Sign of Three, in other words, shows Sherlock as a well-oiled machine. Sherlock’s best man speech – contributed largely (and obviously) by Moffat – is a marvel. As a high concept premise for an episode it is, of course, outright genius. “Sherlock gives a best man speech” is the sort of thing that, upon hearing, one immediately wants to see happen. And Moffat is predictably adept at moving from moments of comedic flailing and genuine emotion. “If I didn’t understand I was being asked to be best man, it is because I never expected to be anybody’s best friend” is a spotless turn, as is the initial resolution of the Bloody Guardsman case, with the observation that John saved a life instead of solving a crime.
(It is actually probably worth detouring briefly to cover the matter of Moffat’s contribution to the script, in that it’s a credited contribution. One does not entirely imagine that this is the first script Moffat has done rewrites on for Doctor Who or Sherlock, but nevertheless, it is the first time he’s been credited, and in hindsight it appears to have been the start of a trend, with him taking a cowriting credit on three episodes of Doctor Who in 2014 as well. In the general case, reports have suggested that Moffat has performed his editing duties with a lighter touch than Davies, giving script notes where Davies would perform rewrites. This certainly wasn’t exclusively the case, but there was a sense of Moffat having considerably less to do with scripts that his name wasn’t on than Davies had.
So taking a co-writing credit here served as a tacit suggestion that Moffat was taking a more active hand on Sherlock than he had. It made a strong claim that the middle episode was no longer the “unimportant” one. Yes, The Hound of Baskerville was clearly an improvement on The Blind Banker in that regard, in that it was at least an adaptation of a major and iconic Sherlock Holmes story, but between this actually having a major event in it vis-a-vis John’s wedding and the fact that Moffat and Gatiss took writing credits on it, this felt more substantial. It’s also worth noting that this was explicitly and deliberately the purpose of Davies taking the co-writing credit on Planet of the Dead and The Waters of Mars.)
But what’s really interesting is what happens once the conclusion begins. There are a lot of moving parts to this puzzle box that get picked up later – two cases, Major Sholto, and Mary’s pregnancy are all subjects of conclusions. but this, especially given what happens to Mary in the actual Doyle stories, makes the subdued last ten minutes oddly stressful, not least because of a couple of shots that serve to highlight the way in which Mary’s wedding dress is tight around the abdomen, which leaves a constant lingering sense that this is all going to resolve with Mary suddenly collapsing in a pool of blood, such that the low key ending of Sherlock leaving the wedding is a strange sort of finish, with the cut to credits feeling more like a reprieve than anything else.
This, of course, is a key piece of setup, as the end of the season is going to turn heavily on the question of who Mary is, and, more importantly, what role she’s going to have in the larger narrative. This is, of course, familiar territory for Moffat, who has been poking at and deconstructing the sort of plot that would emerge from John being violently widowed ever since A Good Man Goes to War. And much of The Sign of Three, in hindsight, is about setting that up. The warmth between Sherlock and Mary, and the way in which she integrates smoothly into John and Sherlock’s life is too pronounced for this to actually go in the direction teased. Other writers might make a character this good just to kill her, but Moffat?
And yet the most interesting question – what he’s going to do next – remains opaque. There are teases without substance – the invocation of the next episode’s title, most obviously. But there’s no actual substance to them – just a sense that, over the course of these ninety minutes, the scope of what Sherlock can do as a show has changed.
Which makes the extent to which The Sign of Three is very much a display of “the sort of things Sherlock does well” an idiosyncratic but compelling virtue. This is an episode of Sherlock you can basically hand to anybody and say “this is why the show is good,” which, given that there are only nine of them and the first one is also brilliant, is not necessarily something it needed in 2014, but nevertheless something that’s worth doing periodically, especially for a show that burns this bright and brief in a given season. And yet by the end, after this episode’s fire is extinguished, the remaining calx is something difficult and ever so slightly unsettling. We’ve made a big dramatic mission statement about the nature of mysteries in Sherlock. We’ve done a warm and funny episode that pushes the series’ most obvious virtues to the forefront. All that remains is the main event – the season finale by the show’s marquee writer. And the job it has to do is both simple and massive: be nothing like anyone would have guessed.